Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Love, Sex and Marriage in Victorian America

Queen Victoria reigned over the British Empire, the largest and most diverse empire the world has ever known, from 1837-1901, and gave her name to the age. Among other things the Victorian Age has become known for its sexual prudery. In many things, including social customs, the United States mirrored what was happening across the sea in Britain. Women were allotted a subsidiary role, with patience and self-sacrifice the prime feminine virtues. Motherhood was idealized, alongside virginal innocence. The ideal of purity in sexual behavior became sacrosanct, at least in public.

No one better exemplifies the popular notion of the buttoned up old maid Victorian American prude than purity crusader Carry Nation. Carry Nation is best remembered for crusading against alcohol, but she was also enthusiastically against tobacco, politicians, and sex. She lectured young couples on the evils of buggy riding, she stopped women on the street to warn them against the dangers of seduction, and she wrote a newspaper column whose main theme was the evil of self abuse. After two disastrous marriages, in which her husbands resented her overzealous Christianity and she resented their overzealous embraces, Carry Nation concluded that men were, “…nicotine soaked, beer-besmeared, whiskey-greased, red-eyed devils” and “two-legged animated whiskey flasks.”

  People like Carry Nation have given us a view of Victorian America.  We think we know the Victorians, but do we? The same passions, strengths and weaknesses that exist now, existed then, but people organized themselves very differently.   Read more in:  Love, Sex and Marriage in Victorian America    

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens & The Making of Modern America by Mae Ngai

Ngai argues that immigration policy is fundamentally about citizenship, who is allowed to become a citizen and who is excluded from citizenship. Citizenship matters because it is citizenship that gives an individual the right to have rights within the State (Ngai, 229). With legal rights the immigrant group can vie for economic and political power within the State.

Once the criteria for citizenship which immigrants must meet (e.g. race, class, occupation, acceptable annual number of immigrants who can be absorbed into the economy) is created, an entire new category of unacceptable immigrants is also created, the excludable, the illegal alien who defies the criteria. Thus while the formal mechanisms of immigration policy stand “triple guard to repel legal immigration”; illegal immigrants swarm in at the back door (e.g. although the number of acceptable legal immigrants to the U.S. in 1953 could be measured in the hundreds of thousands, The New York Times estimated that in 1953 some 1.5 million illegal immigrants entered the United States)(Ngai, 247). The ongoing debate over which immigrants are acceptable and which are excludable is central to the fluctuating power relationships within the country. Ngai traces the transformation of U.S. immigration policy from race superiority to multiculturalism based largely on the shifting power relationships (e.g. the war against Fascism and the need to placate allies, the Cold War and the need to embrace the world role as “leader of the free world”).

Ngai indicates that illegal immigration is the central and singularly intractable problem of immigration policy (Ngai, 265). Ngai intimates why this is so without engaging the issue in sufficient depth. Macro-economic forces create the need for labor. Immigration is encouraged to fill this need. The immigration policy of the State manages the human aspects the importation of cheap labor based on the social norms and needs of the State. (Thus “guest worker” programs or contract labor programs are often acceptable to nativists while legal immigration which implies the ultimate achievement of economic and political rights is not.) Ultimately the entire notion of importing cheap immigrant labor (or for that matter siphoning off the top professionals from emerging economies, the so-called brain drain) supports a pyramid of economic self-interest, what Ngai cites as socio-political selfishness (Ngai, 252). At a micro level, immigration is not about the equitable distribution of the fruits of production, it is about maximizing the economic good of the employer. (Thus the Texas farmer preferred to employ illegal Mexicans rather than legal Mexican “braceros”, because the illegals were cheaper, more docile, and did not require as much “red tape”) (Ngai, 255). At a macro-level immigration policy aims at economic progress to create a “national island of relatively homogenous and comfortable people” (Ngai, 252).

Ngai correctly indicates that immigration policy within nation states is not keeping pace with the fluid trans-national movement of capital and labor, “It may be that illegal immigration will persist as long as the world remains divided into sovereign nation-states and as long as there remains an unequal distribution of wealth among them” (Ngai, 269). It is the economic needs of employers that fuels illegal immigration when legal immigration does not satisfy those needs. The employer acts to optimize his economic utility at the expense of the citizen worker, the illegal alien and the broader society.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: The Promised Land by Mary Antin

Antin’s book is a book of personal reminiscence rather than theory, and as such, we must de-construct the work to appreciate what it meant at the turn of the 20 century to become a “typical” American. Antin, a person of rare intelligence, sensitivity and aspirations can hardly be portrayed as typical in any country in any time. Certainly Antin was no more the typical immigrant than Viktor Frankl (author of Man’s Search for Meaning) was the typical Holocaust inmate. She did however, live the life and is able to reveal (sometimes unintentionally) the forces at work in transforming immigrants into Americans.

Antin begins with a portrayal of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia. The environment is one characterized by both external and internal restrictions. The external restrictions began with the geographic confinement of Jews to a certain area, “the Pale” (Antin, 7). Even within this geographic area, Jews were subject to persecution and prejudice, forcing the Jewish population to engage in “humiliating dissimulation” when dealing with officials and Gentiles in general. Jews lived in constant fear of bloody pogroms (often tacitly encouraged by the Government), and were continually required to pay fees to avoid brutalization or to enjoy rights readily available to Gentiles (Antin 10-17). Internal restrictions centered on the rigidity of Jewish religious customs which limited the horizons of people such as Antin’s father (Antin,53). The lot of women was even more restricted since education (which was entirely religious, secular education being effectively denied to Jews) was largely a male prerogative. Even marriages were arranged by families with little input from the bride (Antin,32). Antin compares the lot of women to that of a “treadmill horse” (Antin, 78).

In America, the external restrictions of Russia vanish. Antin notes that in America the immigrant is free to reside, travel and work wherever he pleases (Antin, 160). Above all, education is free, and Antin is free to “fashion my own life” (Antin, 156), as equal under law as any other person and a “fellow citizen” as worthy as the most notable (e.g. George Washington)(Antin, 177). Internal restrictions (immigrant customs) give way too. Antin’s father, who even in Russia was a man aspiring to a new way of life/thinking, permits his wife to pursue Jewish customs so long as orthodoxy does not interfere with American progress (Antin, 195). The collapse of traditional customs as the normative standard for behavior is bewildering to the first generation and leads to a certain disintegration within the family (Antin, 213).

Perhaps a more typical immigrant is Mary Antin’s sister, Frieda, who goes into the workplace and then marries a laborer. According to Mary, Frieda lives “vicariously” and is apt to have been the type of immigrant most influenced by the cinema and mass culture. Similarly, when Mary’s friend, Goldie’s, father tells his daughter “everything is possible in America if you work hard”, and promises to support her educational efforts, the girl responds that after graduating from grammar school she intends to get a job at Jordan Marsh’s big store, earn three dollars a week and have lots of fun with the other girls. This immigrant’s world is being fashioned by consumerism and mass culture.

Mary Antin was intellectual and poetic by nature; reading, writing, and corresponding with the great men of the day and concerned with the poetic, political and metaphysical. Hers was a highly individual path. The more typical immigrant was primarily the consumer of mass culture.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Grover Cleveland: The Philandering President

Victorian America had its share of philandering politicians, including Grover Cleveland the 22nd and 24th President of the United States (the only U.S. president to serve two non-consecutive terms 1885-1889 and 1893-1897).

During the election of 1884, Cleveland’s Republican opponents discovered reports that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate son while he was a lawyer in Buffalo, and chanted “Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?” in derision. Cleveland admitted to paying child support in 1874 to Maria Halpin, for the maintenance of her son Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Maria Halpin had been involved with several men while an intimate of Cleveland’s, including Cleveland's law partner, Oscar Folsom, for whom the child was also named. Grover Cleveland did not know who the father was, but assumed responsibility.

Despite the scandal, Cleveland won the presidential election of 1884. His backers turned the Republican attack phrase, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” into a victory slogan, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Two years after the election, the first presidential marriage to occur in the White House united Grover Cleveland (49) and Frances Folsom (22). Frances was the daughter of Cleveland’s old law partner Oscar Folsom. Cleveland was the executor of Oscar Folsom's estate and had supervised Frances' upbringing after her father's death. Cleveland had known Frances from babyhood and had helped to buy her first baby carriage. A regular visitor to the Folsom house, Cleveland had taken Frances toys. When Frances went off to college, her room was kept bright with flowers from “Uncle Cleve.” For his part, Cleveland confided to his sister that he was, “waiting for his wife to grow up.”

The American public was enchanted with the match and the marriage was a success. The Cleveland’s had five children and were happily married for some twenty two years.

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